How to Identify Hazards in the School



The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) notes in its most recent guidance for schools that ‘there is a new understanding of the benefits of risk-taking as part of young people’s

Development’, and that:

    • Safety education and integrating risk within the curriculum is key to this

    • Meanwhile, schools have a primary duty to safeguard the staff and young people in their care, while at the same time creating the ‘risk aware, but not risk averse’ citizens of tomorrow

    • A systematic approach to managing safety and health risks is important; ethically, it is the right thing to do, and it enables the school to comply with their duties under health and safety law

    • The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 imposes a duty on all employers to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of employees and others, including school visitors and pupils

    • As such, schools also have legal responsibilities for safety, and it is an integral part of the Ofsted framework

When identifying and addressing potential health and safety risks in schools or educational environments, hazards can broadly be broken down into two main categories:

  • risks to employees
  • risks to pupils
  • Since there’s a significant amount of crossover due to both groups sharing an environment/workplace, much of this guide will apply both to pupils and staff - but the focus will largely be on issues around keeping children safe in schools

  • See section (4) for specific details on educational staff hazard statistics and awareness

Responsibilities and record-keeping

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    • Schools are responsible for the day-to-day health and safety of its pupils whenever those pupils are under the care of school staff

    • In most cases, this includes both lesson and break times, as well as school trips and any other staff-supervised extracurricular activity held on or off the immediate school premises

    • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require that schools make a suitable and sufficient assessment of the risk to health and safety of staff, pupils and others

    • If pupils will be involved in an activity where there is an element of risk, schools need to be able to show that they have taken ‘all reasonably practicable precautions’

    • Final sign-off duties for an individual establishment’s internal health and safety policy will depend to some extent on the type of school in question

    • Similarly, ultimate legal responsibility (including health and safety accountability) for staff and pupils lies with the employer, just like in other workplaces

    • In schools, the definition of ‘the employer’ can change according to the school type

    • Other school managers involved in the day-to-day running of educational establishments also have some key responsibilities


Common Queries

    • Parents are welcome to request a copy of the school’s health and safety policy, which all educational establishments will have

    • Concerned parents are encouraged to contact the school directly, and subsequently to bring unresolved matters to the attention of local councils or the HSE

    • Schools are legally obliged to report all serious accidents, outbreaks of disease or other dangerous incidents to the HSE

    • Parents are welcome to contact HSE themselves to check that this has been done

    • Schools are not required by law to keep to a maximum class size on health and safety grounds, although maximum class sizes for children aged 5-7 have been set at 30 pupils to help raise standards in maintained schools

    • Schools are required by law to abide by the same standard indoor temperature guidelines as all other workplaces

    • There is no specific health and safety legislation limiting the weight that children in school can carry (i.e. in backpacks or when helping to set up lesson equipment)

    • Section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 imposes some duties on employers towards ‘persons other than employees’; for the purposes of health and safety matters, this typically includes pupils

    • Other non-HSE legislation concerning the welfare of school children will usually take precedence in cases of misconduct or dereliction of duty


Notes on general areas of risk in school activities

i. Practical science and hands-on experiments

    • The Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology reported in 2011 that ‘practical school science inside and outside the classroom’ was ‘essential’

    • It was also agreed that existing health and safety legislation did not limit this, but that excessive concern regarding legislation sometimes did

    • The HSE encourages schools to allow children to experience risk in a managed environment, and does not advocate stopping pupils from participating due to perceived risk

    • HSE acknowledges that, as well as learning the principles of science, hands-on experiments allow pupils to develop an appreciation of the hazards and risks

    • It explicitly notes that ‘sensible health and safety means focusing on managing the real risks and going ahead with activities’

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ii. Design and technology workshops

    • British Standard 4163:2007 offers useful advice regarding health and safety for design and technology teaching in schools (see section 5 resources)

    • The guidelines include codes of best practice and advice for staff responsible for facilities and equipment

    • Safe use of equipment, machine tools, materials and chemicals, cutting mats, safety goggles and any other personal protective equipment (PPE) should all be considered as part of a school’s risk assessment process for these types of facilities

    • Detailed inventories of available facilities and equipment should be kept and regularly updated by all schools, including all PPE such as face masks, respirators, safety glasses and goggles, ear defenders or plugs, gloves, bench mats and overalls; individual class sizes should not exceed available PPE stock levels

    • Appropriate training and guidance should be provided in the correct and safe use of PPE for both teachers and pupils

iii. School sports

    • HSE states that health and safety legislation should not be used as a reason to prevent participation in school sports

    • Further statements from HSE make clear that mistaken health and safety concerns should not prevent children from expanding their learning and stretching their abilities

    • Current legislation does require schools to manage the risk from sports activities sensibly

    • According to HSE, ‘in most cases, this will involve making sure that equipment is suitable for the pupils involved, that grounds are properly maintained and the right level of supervision for pupils is in place’

    • Managing the risks sensibly means that the schools and relevant teaching staff keep up to date with guidance and standards applicable to the sports that are taught

    • Many of the National Governing Bodies provide guidance to help schools introduce pupils to new sports or physical activities, and help them develop safe skills progressively

    • It is also acknowledged that sports activities will inevitably lead to injuries on occasion, due to their physical and competitive nature

    • RIDDOR regulations 1995 give guidance and legal directions for the reporting and logging of any accidents, injuries or dangerous situations that occur in this manner

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iv. Vehicle Movement on (and off) school premises

    • Directives and advice from HSE states that it is the school’s responsibility to assess and manage risk presented by vehicle movements on school premises

    • Suitable risk management includes such measures as traffic segregation, zonal marking and lighting

    • With regards to vehicle movements directly outside school premises, HSE notes that schools should also consider this in their risk assessment process

    • Schools have a duty to assess the risk posed by any outside vehicle movements in the immediate vicinity associated with general school activities (staff arrival and departure, school buses, delivery vehicles etc)

v. Bullying

    • By law, all state (not private) schools must have a behaviour policy in place that includes measures to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils; this policy is decided by the school, and all teachers, pupils and parents must be told what it entails

    • Certain forms of bullying are illegal and should be reported to the police - these include:

    • violence or assault

    • theft

    • repeated harassment or intimidation (name calling, threats, and abusive phone calls, emails or text messages)

    • hate crimes

    • Schools must also follow the anti-discrimination law; staff must act to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation within the school

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vii. School Trips

    • See section (3), below

10 Principles for more effective safety education

It is broadly acknowledged that health and safety responsibility in schools should cover both the duty of care to pupils under supervision, and the teaching of effective safety principles as part of the students’ wider curriculum.

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In seeking to achieve the latter, RoSPA identifies the following measures as key:

i. Encouraging the adoption of, or reinforce, a whole school approach within the wider community

ii. Using active approaches to teaching and learning (including interactive and experiential learning)

iii. Involving young people in real decisions to help them stay safe, such as risk assessments for school visits

iv. Assessing children and young people’s learning needs

v. Teaching safety as part of a comprehensive personal social and health curriculum

vi. Using realistic and relevant settings and resources

vii. Working in partnership

viii. Addressing known risk and protective factors; an understanding of risk and protective factors can help those designing and delivering safety education resources to focus on wider aspects of injury prevention and personal safety

ix. Addressing psychosocial aspects of safety e.g. confidence, resilience, self-esteem, self-sufficiency; psychosocial risk and protective factors are individual characteristics that may predispose children to injury, or to being a victim of bullying, violence or abuse

x. Adopting positive approaches which model and reward safe behaviour within a safe, supportive environment


Making an actionable checklist

HSE guidance outlines the best approach to active risk assessment in schools, using the same five-step process it recommends for all workplaces:

i. Identify the hazards

    • This is best done as a walk-around activity with two or more staff members

    • When thinking about potential hazards, consider the activities, behaviours, processes, items or substances used that could potentially injure staff or pupils engaging in normal day-to-day use of different areas of the building and its grounds

    • In all areas of risk assessment, be mindful of at least the four main hazard groups: physical, mental, chemical and biologicalimage 8

ii. Make specific assessment notes about who may be harmed, and how

    • Examine potential risks and hazards to pupils, staff (see section 4 below), visitors, and the public

    • Again, be aware of the differences between e.g. physical and mental hazards

    • Consider the differing needs, challenges and vulnerabilities for specific groups, such as younger or older people, disabled pupils and/or staff, shift workers, pregnant women etc

iii. Assess the different levels of risk

  • Consider how likely each potential hazard or scenario is to result in accident or injury, and prioritise address measures accordingly

  • Be mindful of the fact that remedial measures won’t ever eliminate risk completely

  • Any that remain should be categorised in terms of high, medium or low risk, and appropriate plans of action drawn up in the event of accidents or injuries

iv. Make and keep accurate, detailed written records of all findings

    • Records should include full details of any potential hazards or risks found

    • Make note of levels of risk assigned to different areas

    • Outline any steps taken to mitigate hazards, the resulting change in risk level (if any), and accurate schedules/plans for prioritising any outstanding steps that will need to be taken

    • Be aware when creating risk assessment documents that they are a work in progress, and will form the basis for subsequent reviews of working practices; as such, they should be easy to read, update and amend

    • Make sure the document is readily accessible to all relevant members of staff, carers etc

v. Incorporate frequent reviews

    • Regularly scheduled reviews of previous health and safety risk assessments should be scheduled throughout the school year

    • The documents should be able to help ensure that agreed safe working practices continue to be applied in the day-to-day running of the school premises

    • Any changes to the physical layout of the building and its grounds, significant staffing movements, changes to working policies or targets, and acquisitions of new equipment or facilities should also be used as an opportunity to review risk assessments

School Trips - key points for staff and schools

To address what it saw as widespread excessive concern around legislation and bureaucracy for health and safety during school visits, HSE produced a high-level statement to clarify its position on the subject. It noted:

    • That school trips and outdoor learning had an obvious and important benefit to pupils

    • That misunderstandings about the application of health and safety law (including frustration over paperwork and fear of prosecution) may, in some cases, discourage schools and teachers from organising trips

    • That this was not the aim of legislation, and that HSE ‘fully supports schools arranging a wide range of out-of-school activities, which can include challenging and adventurous activities’


The statement identifies the importance of ‘striking the right balance’, which HSE believes should include:

    • Schools and staff focusing on real risks when planning trips

    • Those running trips fully understanding their roles, and feeling supported and competent to lead or take part in them

    • Effective management of real risks during the trip

    • Maximising learning opportunities and pupil experience as far as sensibly practical

It specifically noted that the following should not be considered part of ‘striking a balance’:

    • Every possible aspect being set out in copious paperwork to cover all eventualities and personnel from any possible liability

    • Detailed risk assessments aimed at higher-risk adventure activities being used for lower-risk school trips

    • Attempting to provide cast-iron guarantees that mistakes and accidents will not happen

    • Having to effectively eliminate all potential risks and hazards in order for a trip to go ahead

The key points regarding HSE’s ethical and legislative stance on school trips are as follows:

    • Teachers should expect their schools to have procedures in place that encourage the fullest possible participation

    • Paperwork and hazard assessment should be proportionate to the level of risk, and avoid excessive bureaucracy

    • Any risk assessment activity involved in planning a trip should focus on real and practical dangers, not fanciful or trivial ones

    • Accidents and mistakes can and do happen on school trips, but HSE feels that schools’ fear of prosecution has been blown out of all proportion

    • The main focus should always be achieving reasonable pupil safety and a quality experience with maximum benefit to participants - not the paperwork involved                                                                                                            
    • HSE’s primary interest is in real risks arising from serious breaches of the law; it carried out 29 prosecutions in the education sector from 2005-2010, of which 18 were in the primary, secondary and vocational sectors                      
    • Of those 18 prosecutions, only two related to breaches during school trips; these were extremely rare cases where there was evidence of recklessness or a clear failure to follow sensible precautions                                        
    • Schools must not interpret this as meaning they must eliminate even the most trivial risks to avoid prosecution          
    • An accident occurring does not mean there was a breach of health and safety law if sensible, proportionate and appropriate precautions were taken


Awareness of the potential risks posed to staff and employees in educational environments should always form part of a comprehensive risk assessment on school premises.



    • The UK HSE notes that, for the school year 2014/15-2016/17, roughly 126,000 employees in the education sector reported as suffering from a work-related illness each year

    • Statistically, teaching and education professionals have a significantly higher risk of reporting work-related ill health than the UK average across all occupations

    • Stress, depression and/or anxiety accounted for more than half of all work-related ill health reports (51%)

    • Of the remainder, just over half (26%) were accounted for by musculoskeletal disorders

    • As with most other types of indoor workplace, by far the largest category of physical injury (40%) were slips, trips or falls on the same level (as opposed to falls from height)

    • Lifting/handling accidents and acts of violence were the two other main causes of reported work injury

    • Of a total of 169,000 reported non-fatal injuries sustained in public sector jobs during the year, 32% were to workers in education

    • A total of 50 058 injuries in primary and secondary schools were reported to HSE over the five-year period from 2005-2010; of these, roughly 30% involved employees


NUT: an A-Z of health and safety - health and safety advice for schools

HSE injury/illness statistics for the public services sector in Great Britain, 2017

Incident reporting in schools (accidents, diseases and dangerous occurrences) - Guidance for employers

CLEAPSS guidance for member schools on safety standards applicable to science lessons

Association for Physical Education (afPE) - see publication ‘Safe Practice in Physical Education and Sport’ for guidance on safe practice

HSE guide: Five Steps to Risk Assessment

British Standard 4163:2007 - health and safety guidance for design and technology (purchasable download)

HSE guide to promoting a balanced health and safety approach in children’s play and leisure

Ellis Whittam health and safety guidance for school trips - includes links to various HSE and RoSPA resources